Social workers perform a vital role in helping individuals access services and resources they need. They act as advocates for safety among children, youth and families, and become licensed and impromptu counselors or legal assistants. They take on the duties of providing health care in clinical settings, temporary companionship or guardians for at-risk individuals, and secretarial-type work during endless applications and appeals for services. Meanwhile, they must continue to manage an ever-growing caseload and lead their own lives outside of the workplace.
Their jobs, duties and roles are not always clearly defined, and it can be hard for social workers to put down their work when they go home for the evening. But, they are an essential part of how people in the U.S. live and grow across every known demographic. In fact, approximately 682,100 social workers take on the challenges of public welfare, reports the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The profession is expected to grow 16 percent over a 10-year period – more than double the typical 7 percent occupation growth rate. Despite leading organizations and societal change, social workers face staggering turnover and burnout rates. Every year, March is Social Work Appreciation Month and a chance to celebrate these heroes.
What Is Social Worker Appreciation Month?
Showcasing social workers is part of National Professional Social Work Month, explains the National Association of Social Workers (NASW). The month is a chance to focus on the profession, acknowledge the contributions made to individuals, families and the community they serve and for organizations to create special events or activities to show their social workers they are valued and essential to the organization’s success.
Every year, NASW creates a theme to describe how people and social workers can come together to make the nation safer, healthier and happier.
For 2018, the theme was “Leaders. Advocates. Champions.” But what does that really mean? And how can we celebrate social workers all year long, beyond the month of March?
The Challenges of Being a Social Worker
The job of the social worker is varied and all-encompassing. Your client isn’t just the person you serve, it’s the family, the community and society at large. Social workers can and do work with all types of individuals, families and groups from birth to death and every stage in between. You can find social workers in every setting: medical, behavioral, outpatient, inpatient, community based and schools. Social workers can be the EAP in a business or an advocate in the court room. Social workers work all shifts, holidays and are often on-call when not at work.
The job is interesting, challenging, emotionally draining and rewarding. There are the highs of making a difference and the lows of struggling to make even an inch of progress. Like many of the human services and helping professions, salaries for social workers tend to be lower than other college-educated professionals. Since 2014, the average starting wage of college graduates has risen to more than $50,000, explains U.S. News. Yet, the wages of social workers remain near $45,000. A closer look at social worker occupations reveals wages may be as low as $38,760 for those involved in individual and family services, two key aspects of social work.
The job is interesting, challenging, emotionally draining and rewarding. There are the highs of making a difference and the lows of struggling to make even an inch of progress.
As a result, there is high burnout and turnover in the profession, and these rates continue to rise. Often, the need to make a living wage and feeling underappreciated result in burnout or the decision to change careers. Moreover, social workers must often work evenings, weekends and holidays to meet with people in need due to scheduling conflicts and the working hours of parents and people in need. Consequently, it can be difficult to keep personal or familial responsibilities while providing services as a social worker.
Think about what this means for social workers’ safety and their mental or physical health. They may encounter violent situations or witness the resulting traumas of abuse. Yet, court proceedings can move slowly, and at any time, at-risk individuals could end up in the same circumstances that first warranted wellness checks.
It is not hard to see why turnover is a real problem facing managers and organizations in the behavioral health industry.
Social Work Month Year: Being a Leader
This year’s theme emphasized the roles social workers have beyond clinician, case manager and care giver. Being a leader as a social worker helps you take care of the next generation of social workers and prevent the tide of burnout and turnover. Currently, social workers make up the largest group of mental health care providers in the U.S., yet the need is growing.
To make this year’s National Social Worker Appreciation Month continue all year, be a champion for the profession and use these tips below to help social workers become effective leaders.
- Provide feedback: Be willing to have tough conversations and address work challenges or deficiencies head-on. Make sure the conversation is direct, respectful and constructive. So often we see (and experience) examples of managers who are unable to address an issue directly. Instead, a watered down, general message is delivered to the entire group, with the hope that the two or three employees for whom the message is really intended, actually listen and apply it. Rarely does that happen. Or, we’ve experienced the manager who is fearful of conflict and difficult conversations so doesn’t address an issue until it’s occurred over and over, built up to a bigger problem and then finally comes in, full force, to address a big problem with a strong, often angry response.
- Communicate, then communicate again and then over-communicate: Staff need to know what is going on in the organization, what decisions have been made and why they were made, and what that means to their role within the overall organization. Being an effective leader means seeing the big picture, thinking long-term and balancing that with the day-to-day tasks and duties. Providing that viewpoint and helping employees understand how they fit into the bigger picture helps them obtain that view of the organization and begin to think like a leader.
- Reward and recount accomplishments: Rewarding employees for accomplishments ties directly into positive reinforcement – not a new concept to those of us who studied psychology and human behavior. If you recognize and reinforce positive behavior, it will happen more often and negative behaviors will decrease. Beyond that basic concept, recounting accomplishments is key to successful repetition. By publically acknowledging successes and then going a step further to discover and share the details of how it became a success, you are not just rewarding the individual, but giving that person and the entire team the knowledge needed to repeat this success elsewhere.
- Be positive: This sounds very Pollyanna, doesn’t it? Am I suggesting that you should always be that positive, look for the good in everything, glass is half-full, rose-colored glasses wearing kind of person? Not exactly. As a manager, being positive means focusing on solutions, on improvements, and how to make things better. The fact is, the glass is always half full and half empty, and in the world of human services, there are plenty of “negatives” to focus on. Negativity and focusing on what is wrong with your job or organization is like the Tasmanian Devil from Looney Tunes – he spins and spins, growing stronger and stronger and pulling everything around him into his funnel of destruction. Avoiding negativity is the first step, but actively countering it by focusing on problem-solving and empowering staff to be part of positive change can stop that Tasmanian Devil in his tracks.
March is a special time to showcase your support for social workers and the essential roles they play in your organization. However, beyond Social Work Month, social workers need and deserve recognition, appreciation and development into the leaders of tomorrow.
This year, take the theme of social work month and Advocate for your staff, be their Champion and turn them into Leaders.